TWO WOMEN OF VALOR: Betty Ford, Former First Lady of the U.S. and Marsha Linehan, PhD

                                                    First Lady Betty Ford (1918-2011)

                                                  Dr. Marsha M. Linehan 1944 –    )

Although people have suffered from mental illness since the beginning of recorded history, until recent years they did so in shame, totally stigmatized, often “put away” and always living – and more often dying – without hope.

Former First Lady, Betty Ford, who at ninety-three died Friday, July 8, 2011, gave a public face to cancer and addictions, while Dr. Marsha Linehan added greatly to the field of mental illness. Both women have influenced the treatment of these diseases in profound ways and their impact has had a lasting effect on those victimized by pain, living with inadequate care, in shame, and without hope.

Most importantly, they have helped to de-stigmatize those suffering from one or another of the diseases: advocating not only for cancer and the proper treatment for substance abuse and various addictions, but also furthering the advancement of our understanding and acceptance of those suffering from mental illness. Ford and Linehan have each offered significant solutions for people who would not otherwise have been able to live productive lives with dignity and courage.

A survivor of breast cancer, Betty Ford took the whispering of the word “Cancer” (the big “C”) out from of the closet, becoming one of the first advocates for the care of women diagnosed with cancer.
In addition, her family – the President of the United States, Gerald Ford, and their four children – did an “intervention” to convince the First Lady that she was suffering from alcohol addiction and that her suffering was affecting the entire family. After agreeing to receive treatment, she went on to co-found the BETTY FORD CENTER, a rehabilitation haven for those “affected by alcoholism and/or other drugs.” Many thousands of people have entered the facility since its doors were opened in 1982 – from the rich and famous to every day citizens who are offered financial assistance when needed – and all of whom, in the Center’s mission statement, are offered “treatment to begin the exciting journey to a new life.”

Professor of Psychology, Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle, and Director of Behavioral Research and Therapy Clinics, Dr. Marsha Linehan, whose biography notes “her primary research is in the application of behavioral models to suicidal behaviors, drug abuse, and borderline personality disorder” is best known to those of us in the mental health community as the developer of DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy), a therapy which combines behavioral science with concepts of “acceptance and mindfulness derived from eastern and western contemplative practices.” She has saved countless lives with her groundbreaking research and treatments which include helping patients to identify their thoughts, beliefs, and assumptions and then teaching them different ways of thinking and reacting.  In effect, Dr. Linehan tells patients, “Your problem is that you don’t know how to regulate yourself, and I can teach you how.”  Mentoring others to use DBT has created a significant number of qualified therapists who now help those who are diagnosed with “borderline personality disorder.”

However, in Dr. Linehan’s case, it was not until last month, in June, 2011, when she – for the first time – in a speech presented at the Living Institute in Hartford, Connecticut, disclosed (much to the shock if everyone in the audience) that she has suffered from that very disorder. She revealed a life-long history of multiple suicide attempts and years of deplorable hospitalizations and only after attempts to heal herself and then entering the field of psychology did she ultimately contribute greatly to our understanding of the brain and its various disorders.

For Linehan the treatment modality known as DBT was, in no small measure, discovered through her own suffering and has subsequently helped thousands of people, even before she self-disclosed.

As we here in the States mourn the death of former First Lady, Betty Ford, we must acknowledge the strength of character and the service provided by her courage and willingness to he help others, reaching beyond herself and her loved ones to all who suffer, thereby taking away harmful, destructive stigmas and fear, providing us, instead, with life-affirming gifts of recovery.

The courageous spirit of both these women is to be commended as we continue to treat all patients, allowing them to come out from the chaos created by their demons where once there were the equally if not more harmful diseases of secrets and shame.

As a society, we can hold our heads high, knowing that people such as Ford and Linehan (and many others not mentioned here) are willing to give a face to their own disease, and beyond that provide treatment for all in need of help.

As a psychotherapist/addictions counselor and the daughter of a mentally ill mother who suffered before the days of modern medicine when current treatments were not available, I am personally indebted to both these women and encourage everyone to read about their lives, their challenges and their accomplishments.